Venezuelan opposition fractures over ballots or bullets to win power

February 14, 2014

When Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez died last March there were some hopes the end of his strutting, belligerent and goading influence would calm the country’s violently polarised politics.

No such luck.

This week Chavez’ replacement as President and leader of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Nicolas Maduro, is warning of a slow-motion coup after tens of thousands of anti-government students and extremist opposition factions launched a “day of rage” in cities across the country.

“I alert the world,” Maduro said on television on Wednesday evening, “we are facing a planned coup d’etat.”

At least three people were killed and dozens arrested in Caracas, the capital, on Wednesday as police cracked down on the week-long demonstrations. Wednesday’s march coincided with the Day of Youth on February 12, the 200th anniversary of the 1814 independence battle at the city of La Victoria, in which young people played a prominent part.

The protests were started by students from private universities in smaller cities across the country, but were joined by factions in the opposition Democratic Unity Movement (MUD) as the tempo of the demonstrations increased.

The protests were sparked by outrage over issues like violent crime. The murder on January 6 of Monica Spear, an actress and former Miss Venezuela, and her husband drew world-wide attention to Venezuela’s murder rate, which is double that of Mexico. The World Economic Forum says the level of violence is having a disastrous effect on Venezuela’s economy.

The economic situation was another spur to the demonstrations. Venezuela’s inflation rate is over 56 per cent, one of the world’s highest, and in January over a quarter of basic goods were unavailable in shops and stores.

The murder of Spear and her husband forced Maduro to admit the dangerous level of violence and insecurity in the country. The pressure was such that he departed from the Chavez and PSUV lines of excluding and isolating the opposition, and invited MUD leader Henrique Capriles to join in a National Peace Plan.

Maduro is not known for political cunning, or any other intellectual abilities for that matter. But his invitation to Capriles has had the effect of sharpening the divides within the opposition MUD, and may well save the presidency of Maduro, who was elected last April with the narrowest of majorities.

When Capriles, along with several state governors and mayors who belong to the opposition MUD, met with Maduro, it stirred up the internal antagonisms that have been a feature of the opposition alliance since it was formed in the wake of Chavez’ first election in 1998.

Capriles represents the moderate and centrist faction in the opposition that believes only in using constitutional and electoral means to defeat the PSUV government, which is never hesitant to use authoritarian means to keep its grip on power.

However, Capriles’ stature as opposition leader has fluctuated. His focus on economic issues and his work to build a strong grass-roots party base at the city and state levels have brought him a lot of credit and popular support.

But his failure to dislodge either Chavez or Maduro in presidential elections has angered and frustrated the factions within the MUD that believe the PSUV will never allow itself to be defeated in free and fair elections. This faction, known as Popular Will, believes that only “direct action,” such as strikes, street demonstrations, election boycotts and even a coup are the only means to dislodge the Maduro government.

While this week’s protests began with actions by students, by the time they concluded on Wednesday, Popular Will leaders such as Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo Lopez had become prominent in the demonstrations.

On Thursday, an arrest warrant was issued for Lopez on charges including conspiracy and murder. Government officials called Lopez the “intellectual author” of Wednesday’s violence, and thus responsible for the government supporter and two protesters who were shot and killed.

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, in a television interview on Thursday, accused Lopez of directing “a well-trained group of followers. We can no longer tolerate that this group acts with impunity, bathing the Venezuelan people in blood,” he said.

Witnesses on the streets say there was no indication in the chaotic melee of the demonstration that anyone was trained, not even the police, who forgot to bring their gas masks and had nothing to protect themselves when they started firing tear gas at the protesters.

Venezuelan politics have always been notably volatile. In 2002 the army, it is claimed with support from the conservative business community and even the United States, used the upheaval of anti-Chavez street protests to launch a coup.

The coup quickly collapsed in the face of pro-Chavez demonstrations and lack of public support for the generals.

Since then, the anti-government student organisations have become increasingly prominent in the “direct action” protests. They have also become what appears to be a purposeful target of U.S. government “youth outreach” programmes. Wikileaks cables show Washington gave over $4 million to Venezuelan student groups in 2010-11.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014